In a public discussion just before his concert Tuesday evening, Ray Cornils, Portland’s municipal organist since 1990, mentioned that he has not had many opportunities to play the Kotzschmar organ since it was restored and reinstalled in Merrill Auditorium last year. The organ’s $2.6 million restoration included cleaning and revoicing all of its nearly 7,000 pipes and upgrading most of its other components. But while an instrument as complicated as the Kotzschmar undoubtedly has some secrets still to be revealed, surely no one who attended Cornils’ recital on Tuesday evening would have left with the impression that he was not intimately familiar with the organ’s post-restoration strengths.

In a varied program that included hefty scores by Bach and Handel, as well as lighter showpieces and transcriptions that demanded both vivid and subtle hues, Cornils reveled in the breadth of the instrument’s brightened palette and the flexibility of its new console, which allows for greater combinations of timbres than its predecessors.

The concert was the finale of the Orgelfest summer series and a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Cornils’ appointment as municipal organist. Just after the intermission, Cornils was presented with an award from the American Guild of Organists for his work as a performer and educator, and for “keeping the organ forever in the hearts of Portland.” And Laurence H. Rubinstein, the president of the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, read a proclamation from Mayor Michael Brennan and members of the City Council, lauding Cornils’ work.

Cornils opened his program with his own arrangement, for organ and brass, of an orchestral piece, the “Knightsbridge” movement from Eric Coats’ “London Suite.” The ebullient piece, composed in 1933, is probably not for the ages, although it had its heyday as the theme of a BBC radio chat show, “In Town Tonight,” which ran from 1933 to 1960. And if it seemed overly generous of Cornils to share the spotlight with the Kotzschmar Festival Brass so early in the program (the ensemble returned in the second half), he was making a point. In works for brass and organ, the brass almost invariably commandeers the attention. But here, the ensemble and the organ were finely balanced, both in passages where they play together and in dialogues in which Cornils used the organ’s wind and string timbres to either counter or expand upon themes presented by the brass.

In an uncredited solo organ arrangement of Handel’s Concerto No. 4 (Op. 4, No. 4), Cornils distinguished between the organ and orchestral textures by using strikingly different timbres for each, although eventually a listener stopped thinking about the orchestral fabric and focused instead on Cornils’ choice of timbres, most notably the delicate, transparent flutes, richly rounded reed tones and bright brasses. There were moments when his choices may have seemed too kaleidoscopic, but it would be churlish to complain, given that this recital was partly about showing off what the organ can do. In that sense, Cornils is like a kid in a candy shop, and for anyone curious about this organ’s powers (and that would include me), that was just fine.

The urge to explore also explains the prevalence of brief display pieces on the program. The Coates was one, and Cornils followed the Handel with a second, Joseph-Ermend Bonnal’s “La vallé du Béhorléguy, au matin,” a gentle tone poem built of wind and brass dialogues and occasional effects, like the pealing of a distant church bell.


Cornils closed the first half of the concert with Bach’s mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582). Here, he offered a bonus for listeners of a musicological bent, prefacing the Bach with a passacaglia from the little remembered “Messe du deuxieme ton” by the French composer André Raison. Bach lifted the passacaglia theme from Raison’s piece, reshaped it slightly, and used it as the basis for an extraordinary set of densely chromatic variations. Cornils took a slightly brisker tempo than many organists, sacrificing nothing in music’s stateliness, and pointing up the harmonic tensions that make it such a dramatic work.

The second half began with another rich-hued but not particularly memorable showpiece for brass and organ, the “Marche Triomphale” by Théodore Dubois. Included, as well, was a pair of spirituals: Joe Utterback’s arrangement of “Deep River,” in which Robinson Pyle gave a graceful, jazz-tinged account of the melody line, with Cornils providing a gentle accompaniment, and Richard Elliot’s arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” in which both the melody and accompaniment of the first refrain are played solely on the organ’s pedals.

But the most intriguing offerings on this part of the program touched on the Kotzschmar organ’s history. Cornils gave a meltingly beautiful account of “My Heart At Thy Sweet Voice,” an aria from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson and Delilah,” in an arrangement by Edwin H. Lemare, Portland’s municipal organist from 1919 to 1923. Cornils shaped the vocal line with much of the suppleness you would expect a singer to bring to it, including changes of shading within the line. Striking, too, was the choral timbre Cornils brought to parts of the accompaniment.

He closed the program by revisiting a work he played at his debut as municipal organist, in May 1990, Richard Strauss’s “Solemn Entry of the Knights of the Order of St. John.” This 1909 work, originally for brass and timpani, bears faint echoes of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in its opening pages, but then moves into a world of its own. Cornils was again joined by the Kotzschmar Festival Brass, with which he gave a meditative, sharply focused performance. As in the Coates, the brass and organ were perfectly matched and finely balanced.

Like many organ recitals these days, the performance was shown on a large video screen. Elsewhere – where organ concerts usually take place in churches – this is done because the players are tucked away in an organ loft, and listeners don’t see them until they come out to take a bow. At Merrill, where the console is on the stage, Cornils is fully in view, with the screen placed to his left.

But the screen was hardly superfluous. Although Cornils acknowledged, in his pre-concert comments, that some might find the screen distracting, and suggested that those who do should close their eyes, it is hard to imagine that anyone interested in the art of organ playing would have done so. Small cameras to the right of the console projected the performance larger than life, so you could see not only how Cornils used the organ’s five manuals, but also – by way of a picture-in-picture frame – his pedal work. It was an impressive and enlightening use of technology.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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